Some context. The last time Keith Richards released a solo album was in 1992. It was the same year Charles and Diana announced their separation; Bill Wyman left the Stones; Kurt married Courtney. Elswherere, a young researcher working for Andrew Lansley in the Conservative Research Department called David was considered a “bright lad” by then UK Prime Minister John Major. A lot can happen in 23 years.
But, of course, some things never change. Much as you would hope, a solo album by Keith Richards in 2015 sounds pretty much as it would in 1992, 1982 or 1972. Tonally, the blues still dominates; the music has a familiar, Stonesy feel to it. Crosseyed Heart is a familiar stew of rock’n’roll, country and a bit of light reggae. In fact, all that has changed, in some ways, is the voice. It sounds warmer – cask-aged, if you like.
Richards has been working “when inspiration hits” on Crosseyed Heart since at least 2011. Outside the Stones, Richards’ most recent undertaking was Wingless Angels II, an album of Rastafarian spirituals he recorded with Jamaican singer Justin Hinds in he early 2000s. But this is the first album to bear his name since Main Offender.
Conspicuously, Crosseyed Heart is a serious undertaking. It’s very easy to buy into the cartoon version of Keith Richards – the swaggering, Devil-may-care rogue, perpetuated by Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow but that Richards has been willing to play along with more than once. But as Crosseyed Heart makes clear, Richards is not one to shirk from his responsibilities. Across the album’s 15 tracks, he plays nine instruments – including Wurlitzer, Farifsa, electric sitar and a small Colombian guitar called (hilariously) a tiple. We can divine that Richards runs a tight ship: he does not rely on extraneous session men. The key players are his X-Pensive Winos henchmen: drummer Steve Jordan and guitarist Waddy Wachtel, along with a smattering of well-used guests. The album features some of the last work recorded by Bobby Keys (on two tracks), plus cameos from Aaron Neville, Spooner Oldham, Norah Jones and Memphis veterans drawn from the Bar-Kays and the Hi Rhythm Section.
The album opens with the title track, and Keith solo. It’s a surprisingly lovely acoustic blues song, with Keith showing off some dexterous finger-picking skills. The recording is beautiful: airy and warm, and you might hope the rest of the album sounded like this. The first words he sings are “I love my sugar / But I love my honey too”. Thematically, it sets the template for the rest of the album: these 15 songs are concerned principally with love, love gone wrong, petty crime and the outlaw life.
The best songs have a relaxed vibe to them. On “Amnesia” – that might be a distant, funkier cousin to “Doom & Gloom” – Keith dryly confesses, “I didn’t even know the Titanic sunk”. Elsewhere, “Robbed Blind” is half-spoken, carried along on a rolling piano and pedal steel that channels Dylan’s “Queen Jane Approximately”.
Occasionally, Richards revisits the murky rock’n’soul of Exile On Main Street, specifically on “Blues In The Morning”. Later, during the extraordinary “Substantial Damage”, he resembles Mark E Smith, hollering arcane wisdom and/or the football scores over a noise that sounds like someone firing a machine gun down a dark alley full of dustbins.
The rest of the album is not perfect by any standards – some of the tracks feel like generic mid-tempo trans-Atlantic rockers. But Richards has always worn his humour and his soul well and those qualities are sympathetically served here. If Crosseyed Heart is an indication of where a potential new Stones album might one day go, then this is absolutely the kind of record you’d wish they’d make.
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